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"Let 'Er Rip!": Is Les Miles the New Danny Ford?

Because the last six months’ worth of events in Bulldog Nation have left me dejected and demoralized about the future, I have been turning my attention to larger questions concerning college football; viz.: "How could I possibly have ranked the Missouri Tigers over the Oregon Ducks?" and "Why is Bob Stoops no longer ‘Big Game Bob’?" Now we turn to the next such inquiry of interest, which is: "Is Les Miles the new Danny Ford?"

I admit it. I once considered Coach Miles an idiot. For my money, the dude was Bozo the Coach, but "Crazy Lester" proved me wrong, and I was forced to own up to that fact. Having gained newfound respect for Les Miles a year ago, I came to a realization while watching his team play in rooting my tail off for his team to win the Chick-fil-A Bowl: Les Miles reminds me of another coach from around these parts.

Yep, that’s him.

Just yesterday morning, UgaMatt (somewhat politically incorrectly) referred to Coach Miles as "our highly-functioning retard friend at LSU." That line, while perhaps ill-advised and a mite insensitive, reminded me of a story told by former Clemson sports information director Bob Bradley.

In 1977, the year Danny Ford was brought to Lake Hartwell as the Tigers’ offensive line coach, the Atlanta Constitution wrote a story about the Clemson assistant in which he was supposed to be referred to as the "highly regarded Danny Ford." Due to a typographical error, though, the newspaper instead called him the "highly retarded Danny Ford."

Coach Ford was miffed, so he came to Bradley and showed him the article. "Can I sue ‘em for that?" he asked. "Danny," the S.I.D. replied, "you’re gonna have to prove ‘em wrong first."

That was the image Danny Ford cultivated. He came across as the consummate good ol’ boy, standing on the sideline wearing his baseball cap while chewing tobacco, making it known that he liked to go fishing and preferred pickup trucks to fancy automobiles. His post-coaching career has been spent farming.

Although Danny Ford’s career didn’t involve prison, it did involve probation, so, really, he’s just a couple of references to trains, mama, and getting drunk away from being the perfect country and Western song.

Because of his less than sophisticated public image, Danny Ford rarely received the credit he deserved early in his career. When he guided the Fort Hill Felines to a Gator Bowl win over Woody Hayes in his first game and went 8-4 in his first full season in 1979, folks said of Coach Ford what they said of Coach Miles: "He won with the other fellow’s players." (Any corresponding similarities between Charley Pell and the Armani Bear shall remain unremarked at this juncture.)

Even when Coach Ford, like Coach Miles, led his team to a national championship in his third season, many observers believed he was more lucky than good. Both men were credited with being slightly crazy buffoons whose flagrant disregard of common sense and potential consequences paid off due to dumb chance, but not much more than that.

Both men were sold substantially short. Their press conference malapropisms distracted us from their quality as coaches; we tend to pay attention only to the surprising utterances that come from Coach Miles’s mouth, just as we were tricked into placing too much stock in Coach Ford’s verbal quirks.

Following a slow start in 1985, Danny Ford began to say his squad lacked a particular quality, but he hesitated over the right word with which to characterize what that certain something was. He tried using "chemistry," but backed off from the term, saying, "I don’t like that word. I’m not sure I know what it means." When Clemson play-by-play announcer Jim Phillips suggested "cohesiveness," Coach Ford answered: "No, that’s not it, either. I can’t even pronounce that."

Then it hit him. "We’re just not clicking," he said. "Clickness is the word I’m looking for. Is that a word? Well, if it’s not, it is now." It was easy to scoff at such awkward turns of phrase and underestimate the Tiger head coach . . . but Danny Ford knew what he was doing. He was getting us to spend so much time reading his lips that we forgot to watch his hips.

I recognized how analogous the two men are when Coach Miles called for the onside kick against Georgia Tech. It was wild! It was wacky! It was insane! However, it also worked, and not because of random dumb luck, either. It was a calculated gamble. Yes, it was bold, but it was also shrewd. It was the decision of a coach intelligent enough to make an accurate assessment of the odds and gutsy enough to run the risk of having the percentages play out differently.

That decision also allowed me to have a great day!

The move did more than put all those fourth-down rolls of the dice into context; it reminded me of a game played more than 20 years before. If you’re a Georgia fan and you’re my age or older, I know you remember it, because it’s a scar on your heart just like it is on mine.

Get the picture. Sanford Stadium. September 20, 1986. Georgia and Clemson, whose last nine meetings have been decided by an average of a little over five points per game, are tied, 28-28. The Tigers have the ball on their own 36 yard line. The game clock shows 1:11 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Danny Ford runs the ball. On first down, Terrence Flagler takes it out to midfield on a sprint draw down the left sideline. 59 seconds remain. Rodney Williams picks up 15 yards on an option keeper. 53 seconds are left. Danny Ford is getting an earful from his offensive coordinator, who wants to pass the ball. Coach Ford refuses; he doesn’t want to give up the sack that will take them out of field goal range.

The problem, though, is that it isn’t altogether clear that the Country Gentlemen are in field goal range. The Clemson placekicker had already missed a 39-yarder earlier in the final period. Coach Ford was considering letting Rusty Seyle, who by the following year would be the Tigers’ punter, make the attempt. Instead, at the end of a drive consisting of nothing but running plays, he sent David Treadwell, a former walk-on, onto the field for the game-winning three-point try with four seconds left and he drilled it as time expired.

After the game---described by Doug Nye of the Columbia Record as "the biggest victory for Clemson since the Tigers defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl"---Coach Ford was told that folks had not been so certain that his strategy was sound. "Well," he replied, "you fellows were wrong today and sometimes I’m wrong on other days." Coach Ford’s .760 winning percentage at Fort Hill---the best of any Clemson coach except John Heisman (.833) and Charley Pell (.804), neither of whom stuck around even half as long in the Palmetto State as Danny Ford---suggests that he was wrong on a lot fewer days than he was right . . . a mere 29 times in 129 games spent on the sidelines, in fact.

It’s the 21st century now and Danny Ford has been out of coaching for more than a decade, since going 4-7 three times in the last four of the five seasons he spent at Arkansas, but there is a new sheriff in the land of the seemingly crazy yet secretly shrewd. His name is Les Miles, and you underestimate him at your own peril. Questioning his coaching acumen, like doubting that of Danny Ford before him, is a risk for which the odds are not in your favor.

Go ‘Dawgs!